The more experts learn about COVID-19, the weirder the side effects appear to be. Since the pandemic swept the world at the beginning of 2020, coronavirus patients have reported unexpected side effects like loss of taste and smell, the inflammation of the heart muscle, and COVID toes. Now, some people have begun to report that COVID-19 is causing hair loss.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet added hair loss as a possible side effect of COVID-19, organizations and doctors alike have been told by patients that they are experiencing that annoyance.
Grassroots organization Survivor Corps surveyed COVID-19 “long-haulers,” or people who are suffering long-lasting symptoms of the virus, to see what kinds of symptoms they were experiencing. Of the more than 1,500 people surveyed, 423 reported hair loss—that’s 26% of those surveyed.
Actress Alyssa Milano also experienced hair loss after battling COVID-19 for months. In a tweet, Milano shared a video of her brushing her hair and having clumps of it fall out.
“Thought I’d show you what #Covid19 does to your hair. Please take this seriously,” Milano wrote in the tweet.
Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal, a dermatologist from the Cleveland Clinic, explained that the hair loss COVID-19 patients are experiencing can be attributed to the phenomenon of telogen effluvium, which they define as “a nonscarring hair loss that is the result of an abnormal shift in follicular cycling.”
Khetarpal said that kind of hair loss is primarily caused by trauma and extreme stress, which is why it affects mostly those who had an intense experience with COVID-19.
“Essentially, it is a temporary hair loss from excessive shedding due to a shock to the system,” Khetarpal said. “There are several common triggers, such as surgery, major physical or psychological trauma, any kind of infection or high fever, extreme weight loss, or a change in diet.”
Dr. Nate Favini told Business Insider that telogen effluvium causes hair to stop growing and eventually fall out about three months after a traumatic event.
“When the body is in a really stressful situation, it basically diverts energy from growing hair to more essential things,” Favini said.
Although the bout of telogen effluvium has happened to COVID-19 patients, doctors say the virus doesn’t necessarily cause it.
“This is why we’re seeing these patients now, several weeks after COVID-19 symptoms resolve,” Khetarpal said. “Telogen effluvium isn’t a symptom of COVID-19 as much as it is a consequence of the infection.”
Because it’s the stress about COVID-19 that causes telogen effluvium—not the actual virus—Khetarpal said she also has patients who suffer from hair loss who did not test positive for COVID-19. They’re just generally stressed about the pandemic.
“There are so many pandemic-related stresses,” Kgetarpal said. “There’s financial stress, concern for ill family members, anxiety about contracting the virus, social isolation, and changes related to working and schooling from home. We are absolutely seeing hair loss in non-COVID patients that seems related to pandemic stress.”
Additionally, the Cleveland Clinic reports that telogen effluvium is more likely to affect COVID-19 patients who have a genetic disposition or who need to increase their intake of iron, biotin, and vitamin D.
Doctors said the hair loss could last for up to six to nine months and then resolve on its own. Patients can expect to lose up to 50% of the hair on their scalp during that time.